Joris van Ael is an iconographer and author whose work I have mentioned before (here, here and here). He is one of the leading figures behind the Leerhuis van de Kerkvaders, and was one of the organisers of this colloquium.
This conference served as an introduction to the more specific papers that would follow and sought to provide an overview of important themes in the seventh and eighth century East Syrian Fathers, and a sort of framework in which to place the texts that we would be encountering.
Joris began by asking what the relevance is of these three seventh and eighth century Syrian hermit monks for us today. One of the goals of the Leerhuis van de Kerkvaders is to help us become more conscious of the true dimensions of what it means to be Christian. One of the gifts of our time is that the writings of the Syrian Fathers are now becoming available, for which we owe a debt of gratitude to the translators. These Fathers can help to break open our own Christian consciousness and to help us connect with a broader Christian tradition. They thus have an important ecumenical impact. They can help us in the discernment of our own traditions and in the return to the sources that the conciliar renewal encouraged.
He then proceeded to highlight several themes in these Fathers.
Love and openness (vrijmoedigheid – which is not such an easy word to translate, perhaps it also has a suggestion of courage?)
The themes of humility, asceticism, contrition and so on, which are central in these Fathers, are only meaningful when seen within the context of love. There is in God a hidden, unquenchable glow of love, which brings all things into, being, sustains them and completes them. Creation and history are the manner in which this love has become visible. This love grows gradually towards its fulfilment.
Just as the movements of the air let us see through their changes that someone steers them, so the Idea shows through its antithetical changes towards the good, that this change encompasses struggle and the help of grace, which allow it to make gradual progress day after day in making the new reality of love our own. (Isaac the Syrian II, 3,2,1)
Everything that happens, happens within the context of love.
It is out of love that He brought the world into being, out of love that He leads it in its journey through time, out love that He lifts it up to a wonderful transformation, it is out of love that He takes it up into the great mystery of its Creator, and it is in love that the entire guiding principle of creation will eventually be brought together, for in the coming world the love of God will rule over every reasonable being, … over all those whom He has created so that they may find their joy in Him, irrespective of whether they are good or bad. (Isaac the Syrian II, 38, 1-2)
Love is aroused
This stream of love evokes our response. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners and in Him the whole plan of love is revealed, inviting us to respond by reaching out in love.
Jesus, our King, our glory, every mouth glorifies you. To you we always offer every hidden first-fruit of our thoughts… with joy and with a passionate love we offer our praise, for from you we have learnt of the yearning that from all eternity has been hidden in your Father. From you we receive all that is good, while we were expecting evil. In you this knowledge has been revealed, while we were wandering among wild animals. … Our wickedness was not too hard for you… (Isaac II, 3,4,99)
A contrite heart
This realisation evokes a response in us that is rich in feeling and which leads to a contrite heart. (The Dutch word “vermorzeld” is richer in association and means broken up, torn to pieces, or pulverised).
… How could our spirit not be pulverised at seeing the immeasurability of God’s love which led Him to accept humiliation and being battered on the cross? … Simply the fact of seeing God in the flesh and how He was crucified and suffered in human hands is enough to break our hearts for good. (Matta el Maskîne, who was strongly influenced by St Isaac)
The reference to a broken or battered heart is in the first place a reference to pain. This is the pain of seeing one’s own poverty and sinfulness and this can sweep across one. But the gift that accompanies this is the gift of humility that comes through being touched by God’s love. This is a humility that evokes compassion and which results in tears of remorse and repentance.
The spiritual work of mourning, that is the tears of the hidden person which are released in the heart when we have understood the love of the Father, and not when we are scared of judgement. (Isaac, II, 3, 1, 77)
Thus these central words such as mourning, brokenness, contrite and repentant, have a positive colour, for they belong to love and they enable the love of God to enter into the soul. This awakening or movement (ontroering) is the beginning of a spiritual process. It results in the monk making a choice for the cell and the separation from the world. This is not so much a negative rejection of the world, but rather a choice for the place where another dimension of love can be revealed. It leads the monk to the cell of the heart and to a purification in which love increasingly leads one back to the Giver of love, who lives within the heart. The solitude of the hermit is there to lead one to this inner solitude where we are totally dependant on God. And it is within this space of love that the whole world finds its place and where the monk is called to pray for the whole world. This is the cell of the heart, and on the altar of the heart there is place for everything and everyone.
The Fathers provide us with certain directions for entering into this cell of the heart. These are asceticism, the guarding of the heart, and not judging.
The first aspect of asceticism is bodily ascesis. The Lord has given Himself to us in bodily form, and He speaks to us in a bodily language, and it is therefore fitting that our response to Him should include the body. However, bodily asceticism only has value insofar as it is seen as related to Christ.
Bodily asceticism is also relativised for it must lead to a spiritual asceticism which consists primarily of the guarding of the heart.
Guarding the heart
This consists primarily in understanding and discerning the thoughts. The world of the thoughts is by nature light and needs to return to the Light. The struggle with the thoughts is the necessary path which the monk must follow. But God rewards even the most modest of efforts.
Even a very modest ascetical effort is pleasing to God and He regards it as an exquisite gift. Not only does God not blame the one who comes with this limited effort, but He accepts these modest things that are brought to Him with all our hearts as if they were important and perfect things. And even should they be reprehensible, from the moment that they are thought of in love, their givers will find absolutely no reproach from God, … for God is good and merciful. He is not inclined to judge the weaknesses and necessities of our nature even if they do deserve a rebuke… (Isaac II, 14,15)
This purification of our thoughts is expressed in not judging. The Syrian Fathers attach an enormous importance to the absence of any judgement. This is the true sign of the purity of the thoughts. Even those who have the task of correcting others must be extremely careful that they act out of a true self knowledge.
Be on your guard that you are not dominated by the passion of those who become sick through their own desire to educate others; those who take it upon themselves to educate and correct those who have apparently gone astray. … You could answer that you do it out of love. Do not take such a love upon yourself. It would truly be better for you to engage in an act of pleasure seeking and to fall into sin than to be infected by this sickness. (Isaac II, 3,2,39)
For the Syrian Fathers it is our own weak nature that is the place where we encounter grace and that is why the discipline of the cell is important for it brings us into contact with this nature. They longed to totally inhabit this identity as a creature before God, so that they could become totally open to the love of God.
This process leads ultimately to a state of endless wonder and of silence, and to a free and open conversation with God that is characterised by trust.